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Manish—Pan Ambassador to Japan

Published: 
Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Back home in Trinidad for a month from Japan, Michael “Manish” Robinson is busy making pans, playing pan and bringing several students from the Land of the Rising Sun to play our national instrument.

Manish has been bringing Japanese students to Trinidad for more than 20 years. One year he brought 18 students for Panorama. This year three of his students are playing with La Horquetta Pan Groove to defend their small band crown, others with Desperadoes and Shell Invaders.

Manish is playing with Invaders where he has played many times before and loves Arddin Herbert’s arrangement of Ultimate Rejects’ Inside the Festival.

He disagrees with recent reports that the reason for the downturn in the number of players from Japan coming is just from Asami Nagakiya’s tragic death, as he sees family matters and economic conditions the main reasons players he knows aren’t coming this year.

At the same time, he is someone who was very effected by Nagakiya’s death as she had been a student of his, taking private lessons, buying one of her first pans from him and a friend. Manish rededicates himself to strengthening the bonds between Japan and Trinidad despite the tragedy.

No one is more responsible for the growth of steelpan in Japan than Manish. Equal parts, performer, bandleader, arranger, teacher, steelpan builder and tuner, Manish is based in the industrial city of Yokohama but his impact can be felt all over Japan. In addition to performing, Manish teaches both individual and group lessons and groups and has been doing so for decades.

Bona fide cultural ambassador of the national instrument A true ambassador of steelpan and Trinidadian culture, Manish has built steelpans in Trinidad to take over to Japan, built steelpans in Japan, tuned, arranged, and brought other tuners to help in Japan.

For these efforts and more Pan Trinbago recognised Manish in 2014 for his role in the globalisation of steelpan. Dr Mia Gormandy (UTT) who recently completed her dissertation on steelpan in Japan, sees Manish as invaluable to the region.

“Manish has played an important role in the spread of steelpan in Japan,” notes Gormandy. “Not just as a solo performer, but as the founder, musical director, and arranger for one of the leading steelbands in the country, Sonics Tokyo.”

Born and raised in St Barbs area of Laventille, Manish started playing in a steelband led by his father George “Odo” Robinson, called Supersonics as well, as a steelband at Belmont Secondary School. Later Manish and his brothers took some steelpans from his father and began playing around neighbourhood.

In 1988 and 1989, Manish acquired more steelpans from a supportive neighbour and the steelband La Horquetta Pan Groove was born. A few years later, he would travel themworld with Pandemonium Steel Orchestra.

“We went to Denmark, Sweden, London, went to Canada,” says Manish. “We went to the Olympics in Montreal.”

In 1993, he and schoolmate Noel La Pierre went to Japan and played at Seagaia of Miyazaki, a domed water park with a simulated beach with waves and surfing, swimming, and steelpan.

“They were hired to play steelpan from morning until night, complete with limbo, Carnival parades, and any and all types of simulated Caribbean Carnival experience. While there, he fell in love with Japan and moved there permanently Manish started performing where he could, initially as a solo act with backing tracks. However, as he became more popular he had other opportunities, and he started a small group and worked with Japanese pop bands.

This led to many opportunities in the commercial music industry in Japan and Manish recorded with two of the biggest Japanese pop groups Dreams Come True and Fujiki.

Naïve to the Japanese pop music scene, Manish had no idea how popular Dreams Come True was in the country. He recorded with Dreams Come True on their million-selling song Love Love Love which became a number one hit.

Manish the teacher Since 1999 Manish has been the arranger for Sonics Tokyo, one of the leading steelbands in Japan.

In addition to his many television appearances as a performer as well as a popular children show on pan, Manish appeared on a weekly educational television programme that featured steelpan lessons.

This has led to more teaching gigs all over the country. Starting in 2015 at the request of Mark Loquan, he has been to Australia performing at steelband festivals, tuning pan, teaching workshops and is becoming part of the scene there.

Over the years in Japan, Manish has expanded his teaching repertoire which now includes regular group and solo lessons at community centres and other locations across Japan.

Teaching steelpan is an area of great satisfaction.

He says: “Someone cannot play and then you make them a pannist. You see someone who couldn’t play, they don’t know music, they can’t read music, they can’t even hold the sticks. Then they become excellent players. You feel so happy.”

Bringing his students to the home of pan remains very much part of his teaching mission and something he will continue to do despite adversity.

Steelpan is still growing in Japan and it is Michael “Manish” Robinson who is everywhere supporting and leading the charge.

n RAY FUNK is a retired Alaskan judge and a Fulbright scholar who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas.

DR ANDREW MARTIN is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, pannist, and Professor of Music at Inver Hills College in St Paul, Minnesota.

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